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Sunday 7 February 2021

An Unsettling Messiah for Unsettled Times

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

By Rob Esdaile

Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, Thames Ditton

Context: a eucharist (in church and streamed) in a wealthy suburb, the community’s life radically disrupted by the economic shocks brought by the virus

Aim: to show the presence and action of Christ in our unstable times

Have you ever been tempted to ‘jack it all in’, sell up and hit the road? If I heard that you were doing something so ‘unwise’ in our current economic circumstances and I knew you well enough, I guess I might be tempted to pop round and ‘check you were alright.’ When we hear of people ‘upping sticks’, we are content if they are going to a demonstrably better future – to live the Good Life in a warm climate, to advance their career, or even to drive a glam motor-home round Europe for a few years in retirement (while keeping a bolt-hole back home for when the charm of travel fades). But we can hardly make sense of someone just ‘walking away’ from what looks like success. It goes against all our instincts. Our culture trains us to do two things: settle and accumulate. Those are the lifegoals set for us by doting parents, attentive teachers and just about everyone else on our street: security and pleasure.

Unsurprisingly, the Church is not that different from wider society. For at least a thousand years we assumed that our calling was to build a giant network of institutions where everyone could access orthodox worship, sound doctrine and good schooling. And for most of the last millennium those institutions proved also exceptionally good at accumulating wealth and influence. But in recent times the Church has been stripped of both prestige and power. Our instinct is to mourn that loss. But our marginalisation could just put us in that sweet spot where we are finally free to meet the Messiah.

Jesus is a big hit from the start. His charisma has led the first four apostles to leave their boats and follow him. In the synagogue in Capernaum, he’s amazed them by the authority of his teaching. After he cures Simon’s mother-in-law the whole town come crowding round the door. He spends the evening healing sickness and casting out devils. The crowd is ‘eating out of his hand’ (and will do so more literally when we get to the Feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper). Mark makes a brilliant whirlwind of that first 24-hours of Jesus’ public ministry.

Then suddenly he is up and away, disappearing off before dawn to pray in the silence of a lonely place, much to the bemusement of his new followers. ‘Everybody is looking for you!’ they protest when they track him down, but, rather than explaining himself, he simply says: ‘Let us go elsewhere, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ For him it was enough to touch people’s lives once, to plant a seed or to heal a wound – confident that their path would never be the same again. ‘Follow me,’ it turns out, is an invitation to be part of something dynamic, unstable, topsy-turvy, the opposite of good order: traveling light, not turning back, encountering, awakening, moving on.

St. Paul, who seemingly never met Jesus, understood that best of all. It is that dynamic instability, that Spirit-driven ‘moving on’, which is the foundation of the Church, rather than some static fixity. The Apostle’s reward is to forego his reward, sharing the Good News for free. His freedom is to make himself a slave of everyone, giving himself away in a life of service, living radically and constantly on the move. It sounds crazy!

Many of us have struggled through these months of Covid-19 (perhaps more than we can say). Our foundations have been rocked and the expectations which are the background noise to life in the suburbs (settle and accumulate, plan for security, and amuse yourself) have been called into question. Maybe it’s time to take more seriously the unsettling nature of the ministry of ‘the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk 9:58) and to discover that being a Christian means allowing Christ to teach, touch and heal us, then move on through to somewhere new. Being a disciple means living in the wake of his whirlwind. Being Church means discovering with Paul the joy of sharing his message, recognising the presence of the Lord not only when we step aside to pray but also when we pitch in to make a difference.

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